Russia, America, it's time to talk face-to-face

During the late 1980s, superpower leaders demagnitised international confrontation by speaking directly to the other side. Why shouldn't we do this again? Русский

Vasily Gatov
18 July 2016

Both Gorbachev and Reagan were involved in creating "dialogue" between the Soviet Union and the US during the late 1980s. (c) Mark Lennihan / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.In 1986-1987, Ronald Reagan lobbied Mikhail Gorbachev to allow him to speak directly to the Soviet people via television. Eventually, Reagan got his way and, in exchange, gave his Soviet counterpart the same opportunity. Regardless of the symbolic nature of this address (or, actually, because of it), Reagan’s speech played a pivotal role in the fate of the Soviet Union. Here, Reagan spoke not from a position of power — the president of the United States — but from the position of a regular American, troubled by years of confrontation, and who was perfectly able to differentiate between “Russians” and “the Communist party and the government”.

This simple rhetorical method, coupled with Reagan’s acting skills and genuine persuasiveness, had the intended effect. Alongside the various internal processes that Soviet society was experiencing at the time, this address demagnetised the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, and lent a human element to the pre-existing military and diplomatic avenues of communication between the two superpowers. 

Does it make sense for Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin to go down Reagan’s path today? 

Playing the role of outcast and loser

Today, it makes sense to examine the possibility for direct conversation “over the barriers” between Russia and the US — if only because the level of mutual distrust, both genuine and as shaped by media outlets, is almost as great as it was during the Cold War.

Both Russia and the west (the US playing a principal role here) have seriously committed not only to re-arming, but re-orienting internal discourse toward confrontation — and Russia is leading on the latter. The logics of this are, meanwhile, explained only on the expert level. Direct talks (between John Kerry and Vladimir Putin, for example) are rare, and, in the best case scenario, covered in the format of Russian “parquet TV”: a few largely meaningless phrases, a handshake, a view of the Kremlin or Putin’s Sochi residence, and a stand-up with a journalist quoting Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, etc.

In Russia, in particular, US and NATO politics are too often framed through recent, and even ancient history

In Russia, in particular, US and NATO politics are too often framed through recent, and even ancient history. What’s happening in the US and Europe vis-a-vis Russia isn’t much better: besides the new Kremlinologists taking centre stage, we now have right-wing populists adding fuel to the fire, offering up isolationism as a universal weapon in the war against much-maligned globalisation.

In their hatred for globalisation, these right-wingers align themselves with Putin, who, in the spirit of the national political tradition, believes that any political, economic, or military alliance that Russia is not involved is against Russia’s interests.

Yet the modern world is formed precisely through alliances: the rejection of collective agreements and rules is typical behaviour for outcasts and losers who want to avenge themselves against those who have wronged them.

Is it time to speak society-to-society?

When it comes to US-Russian relations, the problem of “too much media” has been around for a long time — in the widest sense of the word: there are too many “mediators” between the centres of power and decision-making.

There is, however, a noticeable difference between the US and Russia with regard to how the existence of these mediators and their roles are perceived. Moreover, Russia does not perceive its place in the American agenda accurately, and experiences nostalgia for the time of “major confrontation”.

These mediators are not just media outlets that work with the news agenda, influencing it objectively and subjectively, sometimes to the point of manipulation. They are also specialised government institutions: diplomacy, intelligence, military-political blocs. Indeed, the task of transferring information and its meaning also involves the active participation of think tanks and, to a certain extent, the academic sphere.

All of this is ideal breeding ground for gurus and pundits who tell audiences “what’s really going on” and “what the opposing side’s moves really mean”

There is also the level of VIP-communicators who don’t have concrete connections to “power centres”, but emotional ones — particularly in Russia, where the process of trying to read Putin’s thoughts before he even thinks them has gone mainstream. In this case, the “VIP” label doesn’t so much reflect the communicator’s actual status, but their view of themselves, which sets up a line of communication between them and media outlets.

Since the days of Marshall McLuhan, the author of famous slogan “the medium is the message”, communications theory has debated what comes first — the source of the message or the message itself, communicators or the instruments they use. John Culkin’s famous phrase (“We shape our tools, thereafter our tools shape us”) is often used to demonstrate this.

Even when they have the opportunity to speak directly, without intermediaries, the “centres of power” in Russia and the US must orient themselves toward the media, which, in turn, work to shape the opinions of these “centres of power”.

This strange relationship has a problem, though — the respective national audiences who can see the difference between the respective “centres of power” and “Americans”/ “Russians” all too clearly. While the American establishment is at least serious about this issue — both when it comes to its own country and to Russia — the Kremlin “centre” sees the US only as a kind of elite group, ideologically cemented around the “main electorate”.

Perhaps it this view of American society as an ideological monolith that determines the way Moscow’s English-language propaganda (mainly RT America and Sputnik) only targets marginal, fringe groups; the Kremlin doesn’t see an opportunity to deliver “Russia’s message” to America’s cemented centre.

January 1988: Gorbachev and Reagan issue a joint New Year's Day message to Soviet and American audiences.

Does the United States (or the west in general) need to explain itself to Russia, which — as it is reflected by the media — positions itself more and more not just as a rogue state but as a rogue society? The fantasy of the scandalous politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky (“to see the boots of Russian soldiers washed by the Indian Ocean”) seemed an absurd form of an imperial hangover in 1993. But by 2016, they had been transformed into the all-too-real boots of Russian soldiers lapped by the Mediterranean at Tartus and Latakia.

If we consider the image of the west shown by Russian media, then the US and its friends aren’t only responsible for everything bad that’s happened in the world since 1991, but even Russia’s internal problems — due to America’s (and, to a lesser extent, Europe’s) anti-Russian policies.

Constant mentions of Putin’s phrase in his September 2015 speech to the UN (“Do you even understand what you’ve done”?) reflect the specific quality of these communications, which do not allow signals from one society to reach the other.

Who was Putin addressing? Not the “average American”, but the nebulous “ruling elite of the US”, which is not only an invention, but an invention that has been attributed subjectivity, actions, and motivations, as calculated by media analysts and turned into “fact” by being repeated very often. This was exactly the case with Russia’s famed “Dulles Plan”, a conspiratorial invention of America’s desire to destroy the Soviet Union/Russia which rose to the fore in the 1990s. This became reality because it was endlessly, obsessively talked about. 

So, if we can agree that the time is right, is there a need for a society-to-society conversation between Russia and the US?

Lessons from the Darwinist media environment

From the point of view of “too much media”, the prevention of direct dialogue between American and Russian societies is more or less the main goal here. The absence of direct dialogue, leaders’ personal dislike of one another, which then grows into institutional hostility, mutual accusations, “bad behaviour” — all of this is ideal breeding ground for gurus and pundits who tell audiences “what’s really going on” and “what the opposing side’s moves really mean”. 

But in a dialectic struggle, all of the mediator’s efforts are aimed at bringing the crisis to the point that a direct statement, whether it’s a declaration of war or the offer of peace at the most critical moment, becomes unavoidable. 


1986: a studio audience takes part in the Leningrad-Boston "tele-bridge". (с) Mikhail Makarenko / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.One strand of communications theory, which focuses on the “media ecology”, sometimes sees media outlets as organisms that mimic the organic world. The “biologisation” of social and industrial processes in media became particularly popular during discussions on “the death of print” and was promoted by the FON Group (Future of News Group) — its most famous representatives, Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis and Emily Bell, argued that the theory of evolution is applicable to the history of media.

If you take a broad view, you can indeed see that media outlets live, die, and evolve similar to the biological world — changes in food supply, personal and competitive migration, climate conditions and the emergence of external forces regulating population. When it comes to industry, we should add the emergence of destructive technologies to these Darwinist parameters.

The number of people engaged in the Soviet “army” of the information war is hard to calculate — most probably there were tens of thousands of “warriors”

In this scheme, individual and collective subjectivity can be attributed the the “media animals” — they can “behave” as a “species”, or they can break the rules of the game as individuals or groups. This is how the theory of media ecology views the “death of print” and the “convergence of new media”.

Why not take the example offered by media ecology and apply it to global political communications, as in the case of US-Russian relations in recent years?

The mutating media intercessor

Under the influence of external factors, the mediator between Russia and America first took the shape of a specific evolutionary group, which then began to “mutate”. During perestroika and after, the media stratum in the USSR/Russia and, later on, the US, previously logically and hierarchically organised, was reformatted by external factors.

In the last stage of the Cold War, a comparatively logical community was, in the Soviet case, created from the International Department at the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR, the diplomats beholden to it, and members of the intelligence community, balanced out intellectually by the Academy of Sciences’ US and Canada Institute and the Institute of World Economy and Relations. This stratum had access to state-controlled media outlets from TASS to APN and regional newspapers, connections and influence within international organisations and an established and developed network of sympathisers with different backgrounds and interests.

The number of people engaged in the Soviet “army” of the information war is hard to calculate — most probably there were tens of thousands of “warriors”. The International Department of the Communist Party wasn’t that large, but the intelligence community, engaged in an ideological struggle on par with media, added at least several thousand people. TASS, APN, Progress publishing house, World Peace Council and other front organisations, foreign media bureaus and academic institutions — all of this was probably comparable, in numbers, to the US’s own “army” of information warriors.

In political terms, the superpowers stopped seeing each other as competing over spheres of influence when the socialist regimes of Eastern Europe began to fall apart

This pyramid-like media intercessor transmitted — both to the Politburo and to the Soviet people — a particular ideological view of what was happening in the world, and corrected this view in accordance with the policies of the Communist party. When it wasn’t being corrected, this enormous apparatus performed routine duties — orientating public consciousness in the spirit of peaceful co-existence behind the iron curtain. Its work abroad took on various forms — from “active” disinformation events to Soviet ballet tours, from rational “soft power” programmes to subversive actions.

On the other side of the ocean, meanwhile, the US had their own apparatus and subdivisions. America’s “army” had a principally different morphology — it was “cloud-like”, horizontal in nature and competitive. 

The United States Information Agency (USIA), for instance, had 10,000 employees in those days — 40% of them worked stateside, the rest were abroad in various positions, from embassy employees to NGO representatives. USIA wasn’t just focused on the Soviets, its offices and representatives were in almost 150 countries. The official reason for founding USIA in 1953 was, in Eisenhower’s words, to “highlight America’s view, while diminishing the Soviet’s side”. 

  • Besides USIA, America’s mediators included, like in the USSR, the intelligence community, think tanks, centres for the study of the USSR, a large group in the Library of Congress, and so on. Media outlets, including large, independent organisations, always had a correspondent in Moscow and USSR specialists on staff. Another important media intercessor were Soviet emigres — from political figures such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Vladimir Bukovsky to KGB defectors, from simple Jewish immigrants to Soviet dissidents forced to leave.

This was how the frontline of the “information war” was organised back then — a war that is once again being talked up not just in the Kremlin, but in the west. The “armies” of this war were very much interested in the continuation of this conflict, and these interests became particularly clear at the very end of the Soviet epoch.

In political terms, the superpowers stopped seeing each other as competing over spheres of influence when the socialist regimes of Eastern Europe began to fall apart — the USSR retreated, recognising the sovereignty of Czechoslovakia, Poland, East Germany and others. Yet in the ideological sphere, the final years of the Cold War were characterised by a significant increase in “active measures” and regular espionage. Then, of course, 1991 came along.

This is the first part of Vasily Gatov's article. We'll be publishing the second in the coming days. Meanwhile, leave your thoughts and comments below. 

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